QUEEN OF THE SCREEN
Jenna’s hard labour
THE ACTRESS TELLS HOW BEING BRAVE HELPED HER CAREER GROW
The other day, Jenna Coleman gave birth for the seventh time. “I feel like my year has been maternity bras and pregnancy bumps,” she says over a cup of tea in a café near her home in north London. “It’s becoming a parody now.”
Before you start to worry about the medical anomaly that is Jenna’s uterus, rest assured it’s all been for the cameras. In real life, the 32-year-old is yet to have children.
“I don’t know if the time is now for me,” she says. On screen, however,
she has been through a long phase of playing mothers.
She’s in the middle of filming the third series of Victoria, the hit TV drama scripted by Daisy Goodwin in which Jenna plays the titular queen, and “we’re up to the seventh child now, which is just ridiculous”. Victoria ultimately had nine so, she adds, “I’m not out of the woods yet.”
And then there’s the BBC psychological drama The Cry, in which Jenna plays Joanna, a young mother in present-day Glasgow, struggling to adapt to the demands of her newborn. Jenna had to pretend to give birth for that as well, screaming and gripping the side of the hospital bed with bared teeth and a sweat-drenched face. It was very convincing, I say. “Oh, was it?” she asks. “Good.”
In order to get into the zone before filming a labour scene, Jenna listens to music by Mumford & Sons. “There’s something about the banjo,” she explains. “I just try to get up a lot of adrenaline and for some reason the banjo and the drums, I think, help.”
Has Jenna ever met her fellow actor, Carey Mulligan, who is married to the band’s frontman, Marcus Mumford?
“No! Can you imagine if I did and said, ‘Your husband helps my labour scenes’?”
It turns out that giving birth is only the start of the action in The Cry. The four-part series, adapted from the eponymous novel by Australian author Helen FitzGerald, centres on a tragedy that triggers Joanna’s psychological unravelling.
In charting her mental disintegration, the drama seeks to expose the myths and unacknowledged truths of motherhood. It’s a compelling watch, but in a piece so focused on the complexities of being a parent I wonder if Jenna has ever worried about not having children herself.
“Yeah. I spent a good first chunk of it just thinking they’d completely miscast – and why on earth me?” she replies.
“I’m not a mother! I really kind of hit myself over the head with it. I felt there was obviously something I wouldn’t be able to capture. It was something so... well, primal that I haven’t literally experienced. And I’ve really struggled with that.”
She emailed all her friends who had babies asking for insight and received reams of information in return, “just the kind of day-to-day realities of what it is being a new mum.”
It made her wonder about the “loss of identity” women face after giving birth and the way they are judged by society for wanting to maintain their own sense of self.
Jenna’s a thinker, and her conversation often drifts off into ellipsis as she tries to clarify a thought or an opinion. When she turns up, dressed in a long cardigan that seems to swamp her petite frame and pixieshaped face, she appears nervous and admits that this is her first interview for years.
“I’ve been away working,” she says, worriedly, as if we might test her on the validity of her excuse. “There are so many pressures on women,” she continues, “to feel that motherhood is the most wonderful thing in the world and it is, absolutely – it’s precious, it’s beautiful, but that really doesn’t mean you can’t have these other things in your life.
“And I think everyone needs to be a little bit more forgiving of mothers who don’t feel guilty for wanting a bit of independence still... I think we all seem to have so many standards on how it’s supposed to be and I think it’s toxic really.”
In fact, Jenna has been thinking a lot about women lately – not just mothers, but about how we all find our place in a world where gender dynamics have been shifting under our feet. The rise of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements in the wake of the scandal surrounding disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, has been “amazing... but I think the only way for that to really have an impact is for those conversations to keep happening, and those facts to keep on surfacing and just keep on going with it... It’s definitely made me feel less apologetic for myself.”
In what way did she feel she had to apologise? Jenna blinks slowly and tilts her face down.
“I think sometimes over the past couple of years, because I’m young and female, there was definitely a feeling like I perhaps didn’t have as
much right to an opinion.” I can see what she means. Jenna is in her 30s and has been working solidly since the age of 18 when she got a part in the long-running soap Emmerdale (her character ended up killing a policeman with a chair leg and currently resides in prison), before being cast as the assistant in Doctor Who next to Matt Smith − and later, Peter Capaldi − but she still looks younger than her years.
Her features are delicate, her manner shy, her stature slight. With her brown eyes and hair, she resembles a pretty little woodland creature who is more comfortable building a nest out of leaves and twigs than having to talk to someone she’s just met. She comes across as an introvert who finds herself in a world of extroversion.
Jenna says that when she first took on the part of Victoria two years ago, “I felt really young... I don’t think I’ve ever particularly been hugely aware of my height as such, or being female, until I was playing her. It’s that thing of power, I guess, and feeling like, ‘How do you play power? How do you project power? Do you just sit on a throne? What do you do?’”
She found the set to be an intimidating environment, but because she was playing a character who faced the same issues – namely, how to make her voice heard in a roomful of older men − Jenna gradually learned how to “be brave enough” to say what she felt. In the end, Queen Victoria rubbed off on her.
“I definitely feel a lot more comfortable now. And I’d say a lot of that is probably because of Victoria, I think.”
She claims never to have experienced overt sexual harassment in the industry, but when she went out to Los Angeles at the age of 21 for auditions, “I was asked to turn up to an audition in a bikini and just said no. You know, there’s been silly things like that.”
How aware is Jenna of asking for equal pay in her roles?
“It’s really hard for me because obviously the last couple of projects I’ve been doing, I’ve been in a comfortable position where
I’ve been able to be strong... But the thing is, nobody talks. Nobody really knows and I think that’s why so much time has gone on where things have been allowed to happen.”
Still, it’s not a massive stretch of the imagination to think that Jenna might, just might, have discussed pay with Tom Hughes, the actor who plays Prince Albert. The two of them, rumoured to have met on set, have been dating since 2016. If only you knew the guy who depicts your husband on screen, I joke, then you could ask him how much he gets paid.
Jenna smiles and then blushes furiously. “If only,” she says, looking away, and that’s about all I can glean about the status of their relationship.
“I feel like it’s a whole can of worms that’s potentially better not to open,” she explains. But she’s happy? “Oh god, yes.”
The couple recently moved house and Jenna is busy decorating. “I’ve been getting into interior design. I love the creative aspect. If you need to know anything about tiles or shades of white, I’m there.”
Her father, Keith, fits the interiors of bars and restaurants for a living, so it clearly runs in the family. Her mother, Karen, “doesn’t work” and her brother Ben, older by three years, is a joiner. Jenna always knew she wanted to act.
“I just used to constantly be playing and telling stories. I started going to the theatre when I was really young. It was always there, I guess. The trickier thing was working out how to turn it into a job. It was
never really a question of...” she breaks off. “I just loved it. Really enjoyed it.”
As a child, growing up in Blackpool, she was “a bit of a tomboy”. “I was just chasing my brother around. He told me the garden was full of eatinggrass.” Did she eat the grass? “I did, yeah,” she grins.
At school, Jenna joined a theatre company and took plays to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. While she was applying for drama school, a local agency put her forward for an Emmerdale audition. It was, she says, “a fluke” that she ended up getting the part, but she did and, aged 18, moved to Leeds while all her friends were going to university. “I was like, ‘Bye Mum!’” Jenna says now. “I was ready to go.”
Working on Emmerdale taught her a lot because “you work with a lot of different actors, a lot of different directors... It was a great training ground.
I just knew I didn’t want to stay there forever.”
She was also keen to not be typecast as a northern, workingclass actor, being given roles involving downtrodden lives and abducted children, which was why, shortly after leaving Emmerdale in 2009, Jenna chose to star as the privileged daughter of an industrial magnate in the BBC adaptation of John Braine’s 1957 novel, Room at the Top.
“I don’t really enjoy playing myself at all,” she says. “I love anything that feels more removed from myself. I have a lot more freedom... But using my own voice and being me, I feel self-conscious. If people ask me to do a speech or something, it’s like my worst nightmare. I can’t bear it.”
It must be strange, given her dislike of drawing attention to herself off screen to find that she is now famous. The & double-whammy of having starred in a long-running cult classic ( Doctor Who) and a primetime costume drama ( Victoria) means she is often stopped in the streets.
“I can see if it’s a young boy, for example, I’ll know that’s Doctor Who. There’s a certain demographic,” she says.
The Victoria fans tend to be older and, “I did get one person who asked, ‘Can I have a selfie, Your Majesty?’ in John Lewis [department store] of all places!” I tell her that is quite possibly the most quintessentially middle-class anecdote I’ve ever heard. Jenna laughs, but then worries it might sound as if she’s complaining. Her level of celebrity, she insists, does not make it feel as if her privacy is intruded upon. “I think if there’s ever a time I would feel that, it would be if somebody is knocking on your front door and invading your space. But I mean, no, I don’t think I could sit and complain about it.”
She finishes her tea and slips her handbag strap across her shoulder. She has interior decorating to be getting on with and shades of white paint to pore over.
She may take some time off after The Cry airs and she’s finished filming Victoria. Over the past year, Jenna has worked so consistently that she’s spent a grand total of 12 nights at home. She wants to finish decorating and go travelling.
“I’ve never been to India or Marrakech,” she says. “I’d like to go somewhere with colours – maybe Cuba. Pick my camera back up. Go and have a bit of Jenna life.” And, presumably, take off the pregnancy bump – at least for a while.
‘ I don’t really enjoy playing myself. I love anything that feels more removed from myself. I have a lot more freedom’
Jenna (in the role of Queen Victoria, right and below,with her partner Tom as Albert) believes there’s a lotof pressure on mothers.
The petite actress played the assistant to Peter Doctor in cult TV classic Doctor Who. Jenna plays a struggling mother alongside co-star Ewen Leslie in psychological drama The Cry. Above: Her first acting job was on TV soap Emmerdale.
Jenna and Tom co-starred in Victoria (above). They’re a private pair, but she confirms, emphatically, that she’s happy.
TheCry screens Sundays on TVNZ 1 at 8.30pm.